In a scathing report issued in late November, House Republicans damned the Transportation Security Administration for becoming an ineffective, wasteful bloated bureaucracy that didn’t carry out its basic mission. Conspicuous by its absence was mention of the TSA’s efforts in air cargo security. It may have been faint praise.
The report didn’t mention cargo security because it “focuses more on areas where we felt there was a need for more immediate reform,” said Justin Harclerode, press secretary for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
In other words, House Republicans, the chamber’s most influential transportation committee and, especially, the industry it governs acknowledge the TSA’s decade-long work on supply chain security is making progress.
“We can’t wait for government requirements to decide how we protect our supply chain,” said James LoBello, chief of security in the Americas for Lufthansa Cargo. “We have a vested and strategic interest in making sure our aircraft, our customers and our people remain in a safe environment. It’s something we’ve been doing all along. TSA is now making it official through government law and mutual recognition.”
In 2007, a Democratic-controlled Congress gave the TSA until August 2012 to screen all international cargo arriving on passenger flights. Last December, after officials in October intercepted packages from Yemen that contained concealed explosives, TSA Administrator John Pistole told lawmakers international supply chains would be secure by the end of 2011, but international security has been much more difficult to achieve.
The TSA recently announced it wouldn’t make its own deadline, but that’s not to say it isn’t making progress. Industry leaders note two significant and related forward steps. Internationally, the TSA is working to synchronize its security requirements with other nations’ through a series of mutual recognition agreements. At home, the agency is working closely with Customs and Border Protection to adopt risk-based screening techniques to air cargo. The TSA declined interview requests for this report.
“They’re going through a very laborious process of assessing other countries’ programs,” said Dave Brooks, president of American Airlines Cargo. “Every country has its own cargo security program. When anyone flies out of one of those countries, they have to comply with the local country program. TSA has recognized a few of those programs, which means we can use the host country program. We don’t have to apply another security regime that TSA dictates.”
The U.N. International Civil Aviation Organization established basic security standards for all countries, but the industry generally has been a step ahead. LoBello said Lufthansa always has assessed ways to mitigate risk, going well beyond the ICAO’s minimum standards.
The attempted bombings by al-Qaida’s Yemen faction radically changed the government’s view of air cargo security and pushed the TSA and Customs to work more closely.
“The Yemen shipment was a paradigm shifter,” Brooks said. The packages cleared several screening points undetected. It took information from intelligence sources for officials to step in. “The incident set off a completely new way of thinking at TSA and Customs that said, ‘Why would someone spend $500 to ship a $200 printer from Yemen to a synagogue in Chicago.’ That didn’t make any sense.”
Customs has a system for identifying cargo security threats in ocean cargo that’s been operational for several years. Customs officials approached the TSA about applying the Automated Targeting System to aviation. The result was the Air Cargo Advance Screening system that operated as part of Customs’ ATS, but using screening protocols established by the TSA.
Barbara Vatier, an air cargo security consultant and co-chair of the Air Cargo Security Subcommittee at COAC, said the TSA considered setting up its own computerized screening system. Once Customs assured the TSA it could control its own rules in ATS, however, “there was no reason not to leverage all that data that Customs had at its fingertips,” she said. An ACAS pilot project began early this year with air express carriers. It is now being introduced to the passenger airlines.
“ACAS is going to allow TSA to get a lot more sophisticated in their rules and algorithms,” Vatier said. It also will be able to create its security procedures without having to share them with shippers,
carriers and intermediaries as it does now.
The future looks promising, but some in the industry are waiting to see if the new procedures will actually improve security. “Going forward, the question is whether or not this will truly be a risk-based platform or another layer on top of existing requirements and mandates,” LoBello said.
The law still mandates 100 percent screening of inbound cargo, but Brooks said development of a risk-based system may persuade Congress that it’s a more effective system.
“The global supply chain and the regulatory enforcers are getting smarter about what needs to be done to make the supply chain safer,” he said. “If you look at the facts of what has happened recently, and combine it with the intelligence we have, I think CBP and TSA can stand up and say, ‘This is our game plan,’ and I don’t think Congress would have any problem with it.”